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Apologies to Mexico: The Drug Trade and GNP (Gross National Pain)

The Mexican drug cartels crave money, but they make that money from the way Yankees across the border crave numbness. They sell unfeeling. We buy it.

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No border divides the pain caused by drugs from the pain brought about in Latin America by the drug business and the narcotraficantes.  It’s one big continent of pain -- and in the last several years the narcos have begun selling drugs in earnest in their own countries, creating  new cultures of addiction and misery.  (And yes, Mexico, your extravagantly corrupt government, military, and police have everything to do with the drug war now, but file that under greed, as usual, about which your pretty new president is unlikely to do anything much.)

Imagine that the demand ceased tomorrow; the profitable business of supply would have to wither away as well. Many talk about legalizing drugs, and there’s something to be said for changing the economic arrangements. But what about reducing their use by developing and promoting more interesting and productive ways of dealing with suffering? Or even getting directly at the causes of that suffering?

Some drug use is, of course, purely recreational, but even recreational drug use stimulates these economies of carnage. And then there are the overdoses of the famous and the unsung on prescription and illicit drugs. Tragic, but those dismembered and mutilated bodies the drug gangs deposit around Mexico are not just tragic, they’re terrifying.

GNP: Gross National Pain and the Pain Export Economy

Mexico, my near neighbor, I have been trying to imagine the export economy of pain. What does it look like? I think it might look like air-conditioning. This is how an air conditioner works: it sucks the heat out of the room and pumps it into the air outside. You could say that air-conditioners don’t really cool things down so much as they relocate the heat. The way the transnational drug economy works is a little like that: people in the U.S. are not reducing the amount of pain in the world; they’re exporting it to Mexico and the rest of Latin America as surely as those places are exporting drugs to us.

In economics, we talk about “externalized costs”: this means the way that you and I pick up the real cost of  oil production with local and global ecological degradation or wars fought on behalf of the oil corporations. Or the way  Walmart turns its employees into paupers, and we pick up the tab for their food stamps and medical care.

With the drug economy, there are externalized traumas. I imagine them moving in a huge circulatory system, like the Gulf Stream, or old trade routes. We give you money and  guns, lots and lots of money. You give us drugs. The guns destroy. The money destroys. The drugs destroy. The pain migrates, a phantom presence crossing the border the other way from the crossings we hear so much about.

The drugs are supposed to numb people out, but that momentary numbing effect causes so much pain elsewhere. There’s a pain economy, a suffering economy, a fear economy, and drugs fuel all of them rather than making them go away. Think of it as another kind of GNP -- gross national pain -- though I don’t know how you’d quantify it.

A friend of mine who’s lived in Latin America for large parts of the last decade says that she’s appalled to see people doing cocaine at parties she goes to in this country. I mentioned that to an anthropologist who was even bleaker in describing the  cocaine migration routes out of the Andes and all the dead babies and exploited women she’d seen along the way.

We’ve had movements to get people to stop buying clothes and shoes made in sweatshops, grapes picked by exploited farmworkers, fish species that are endangered, but no one’s thought to start a similar movement to get people to stop consuming the drugs that cause so much destruction abroad.  

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